According to Lawyers Weekly, “family honor appears to have been a motivating factor in at least 13 homicides in Canada over the past decade.”  One girl’s tragic case has increased awareness of harmful marriage practices in Canada amidst mounting debate about whether forced-marriage laws should be civil or criminalThe Lawyers Weekly reports:

Shafilea Ahmed drank bleach after her parents drugged her and dragged her onto a plane to Pakistan where they planned to marry her to a much older man. The 17-year-old’s desperate ploy succeeded in getting her sent back home…where she spent eight weeks in hospital. Tragically, it didn’t save her life: Seven months later Shafilea was dead, suffocated by her parents, who forced a plastic bag down her throat in front of her siblings as a warning against them acquiring their sister’s “western” habits. This month, a court jailed the Pakistani-born couple for life for the apparent “honour” killing.

Like their English and Scottish counterparts, frontline women’s advocates in Canada fear that criminalizing forced marriage would only force the harmful practice underground, exacerbating the danger to victims.  South Asian Legal Clinic staff lawyer, Deepa Mattoo of Toronto, who has extensive experience with forced marriage victims, told Lawyers Weekly:

We feel there is a threat for the unjust targeting of communities. We know, dealing with the cases on the ground, that sometimes women know well what could be their fate and they still go ahead and do it, because they love their families, their own brothers, their father, and their sisters and they’re not going to come out to criminalize them. You will basically shut down a lot of women from seeking help because they know, once they try to go to the [police] and get their, say father, arrested, that relationship is going to go away.

Mattoo advocates that Canada rely on civil laws to protect victims, and dedicate resources to educate and consult affected communities.  “A lot of our communities don’t even understand — the area is so gray…what they are doing is actually a step further than arranged marriages,” Mattoo told LW, “So they are themselves not clear about when they are crossing the line.”

DOJ spokeswoman Carole Saindon told LW that Canada is committed to honoring international conventions condemning forced and early marriage, and “honor-based” violence.  Lawyers Weekly says Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s press secretary, Julie Di Mambro, declined to comment on whether Ottawa will move to criminalize forced marriage.

READ MORE: Forced marriage: Is it a crime?, Cristin Schmitz, The Lawyers Weekly (August 31, 2012 issue).